Lamenting One That Got Away

The saga of the so-called Q microbe, the micro-organism that could dramatically alter the course of ethanol production, remains one of the most compelling research and development stories in business today.

The problem is, it will soon be some other region’s story.

Specifically, Worcester’s. Those developing the Q microbe announced just over a week ago that, while they would love to stay in the area, where the microbe was discovered (near the Quabbin Reservoir, hence the name) and where many researchers live and work, the facilities and workforce are apparently lacking, thus forcing them to go elsewhere for the next phases of this ambitious project.

This isn’t the first time the region has lost a biotech firm on the rise to the Worcester area, and this announcement made by the principals of Qteros, formerly SunEthanol, could not have been considered a real surprise. But it still hurts.

Actually, this loss is especially painful.

Why? First, there was the promise of new jobs as the concept worked its way through the R&D stage. There would also have been exposure for this region, which is much-needed as it attempts to develop new clusters in the broad technology sector and create new sources of jobs to replace those being lost in traditional manufacturing and other sectors.

But there was also the pride factor, for lack of a better phrase. This is a potentially game-changing development, as they say in research, and it was unfolding right here in the Pioneer Valley. This was going to be a great story for the company, its leaders, UMass (where much of the research is taking place), and the region as a whole.

It will still be a great story — it just won’t be ours.

And this has many people saying that economic-development leaders could have — and should have — done more to keep the company in this area code. This is easy to say (one can always do more), but we’re not sure anyone here could have done enough to change this outcome.

“We needed to move fast, and there really wasn’t a facility here,” Susan Leschine, chief scientist for Qteros, told the local press while explaining the move to Worcester County, juxtaposed against news that the company had received $25 million in next-stage funding.

Reading between the lines of the statements made by those involved, it seems clear that those at Qteros simply got a better offer — probably a much better offer — to move east, where there are large research facilities and, according to many in the industry, a deeper pool of labor to tap.

While being disappointed with this news — as economic development leaders say they are — they should also be determined not to let something like this happen again.

The Worcester area already has an infrastructure in place, as well as a critical mass of companies in this field and talented workers. The Valley? Well, it’s working on all that.

And the lesson to be learned from all this is to keep working on it, so that the next time a company is in the position Qteros is in now, the region stands a fighting chance of keeping it here.

New UMass Chancellor Robert Holub told BusinessWest recently that he is committed to taking the university to the “top tier” among the nation’s research universities. To do that, he and others at the school will have to work with area ecomomic-development leaders, area businesses, and other colleges to create that infrastructure and workforce that Western Mass. currently lacks.

By doing all this, the Valley can not only retain future companies like Qteros, it can possibly attract some from other regions, like Worcester.

The loss of Qteros will sting for some time, but this setback will be even more profound if area leaders don’t answer the wake-up call and ultimately make the Pioneer Valley better able to compete for such companies.-

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